Building minds: How Detroit grows mobility talent

This feature is courtesy of Driven, the story of how the Detroit region is leading the world in next-generation mobility.
David Agnew and a team at MOBIS are working to disrupt your sleep. But only if you're sleeping behind the wheel of a car.

Agnew and his engineers, robotics, communications, and safety experts are hard at work tackling Level 4 autonomous vehicle functioning at the Plymouth, Michigan Tier 1 supplier. Set by engineering organization SAE International, Level 4 is an industry standard that indicates a high level of autonomy in all driving tasks.

This is not the slick "look ma, no hands" driving experience. Instead, they're developing Departed Driver Rescue and Exit Maneuver, or DDREM, a system that detects when a driver has fallen asleep, then simply assumes control of the vehicle and pulls safely out of traffic.

In the last month, one in 25 drivers reported falling asleep behind the wheel, and as many as 6,000 fatal accidents are caused by sleeping drivers each year.

"We are doing Level 4 only as a safety system. It's in the car, but always in the background. It's a simple concept that has not been done yet," says Agnew, who directs advanced engineering for MOBIS. DDREM, as a safety mechanism, adheres to less stringent performance standards than full Level 4 autonomous driving.

Connected and autonomous vehicle development, or mobility, is growing so rapidly that experts compare it to a rocket being built midflight.

Finding the talent to develop that technology, however, has proven to be a challenge. And that's why Michigan universities, colleges, and even K-12 programs are working with mobility leaders to build a talent pipeline to grow and scale the autonomous, connected, shared, and electric vehicle sector and its surrounding infrastructure.

Not just engineers

According to the 2017 Connected Mobility Skills Needs Assessment conducted by Oakland County and the Michigan Talent Investment Agency, employers reported an insufficient pipeline of qualified workers as their greatest hiring challenge. The simplest answer is to train engineers at our world-class colleges and universities, just as we always have.

Adding more computer, electrical, and mechanical engineers to the workforce is a start, but mobility, from a holistic sense, will impact every sector, requiring a fundamental shift in educating the future workforce, according to Dr. Robert McMahan, president at Kettering University in Flint. In addition to sparking new jobs to address the specific challenges of connected and autonomous vehicles, the sector will require skilled talent to develop and analyze mobility-centered business models, environmental factors, human-machine interface capabilities, in-vehicle operating systems, and much more. Successful candidates will have broad, deep, multidisciplinary skills.

"Mobility is one of the most exciting things to happen in engineering in a very long time," says McMahan. "The basis of technology is changing, and changing rapidly. The true answer is almost everything will be impacted."

Kettering University President Dr. Robert McMahan - courtesty of Kettering UniversityThe most valuable employees will be those who reach beyond classroom theory to hands-on development, testing, and problem solving, and Michigan's educational institutions are well equipped to provide this experience.

Kettering, along with Michigan State University and the University of Michigan are part of the Smart Belt Coalition, a regional partnership to advance mobility technology across more than 69,000 miles of roadway, and is one of 15 Michigan colleges and universities in the newly-formed academic consortium to train talent at the American Center for Mobility, a future testing ground in Ypsilanti.

In addition to Kettering's co-op program, students are getting on-campus mobility experience right now. As one of eight participants in the AutoDrive Challenge, Kettering students engage in a three-year competition to develop a full autonomous Level 4 vehicle, and will open the 25-acre GM Mobility Research Center as a competition venue on campus by spring 2018. The competition will be a multidisciplinary effort across engineering disciplines and other majors.

"Eventually, someone could sit in Palo Alto and control an autonomous vehicle in our proving ground here in Michigan," says McMahan. "We already see students coming here because of our participation in these programs."

Developing students to develop technology

Recognizing the value of the real world experience that competitions can provide, MOBIS sponsored the Intelligent Ground Vehicle Competition (IGVC) at Oakland University, which draws student teams from around the globe.

MOBIS selected Lawrence Technological University for their reputation in robotics. A team of students got to work, and won the Spec2 (now called Self Drive) category in 2017. The vehicle now serves as an autonomous campus taxi.

"IGVC isn't about developing the technology. It's about developing the students," says Agnew. "That's the big difference."

Lawrence Technological University's award winning autonomous vehicle now operates as a campus taxi

Competitions and co-ops allow students to make mistakes and solve problems, says engineering manager Frank Judge, at Autoliv in Southfield, who works with automotive vision products for OEMs. "For what we do, there isn't a class for writing vehicle algorithms. You have to use your real world experience to get systems functioning together," he says.

He recommends First Robotics competitions, even Lego Mindstorms programs, to cultivate in-demand mobility skills among K-12 students.

Mining the existing knowledge base

The University of Michigan has been working for years to advance the knowledge base for current students, and those already in the industry. As the Midwest USDOT Center for Connected and Automated Transportation (CCAT), U-M, together with Washtenaw Community College and four Midwest universities, will research transitions to mobility and train the next-generation workforce.

The center will live at the U-M Transportation Research Institute (UMTRI), and build on studies conducted at U-M Mobility Transformation Center's MCity, and collaborate with the Ann Arbor Connected Vehicle Test Environment (AACVTE), where 3,150 vehicles will interact with 70 infrastructure sites, including 49 intersections, four pedestrian crosswalks, and a roundabout, all updated to 2016 industry standards.

Knowledge gained goes directly into newly developed U-M curricula, including publicly available short courses in intelligent transportation, connected vehicle technology, infrastructure, and cyber security. Law school courses present hypothetical liability scenarios, and apply existing legal framework to study gaps. Master's level certificate programs will cover mobility fundamentals with lectures by industry experts. An internship program will bring auto tech students from Washtenaw Community College (WCC) to the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute (UMTRI) to install connected vehicle components.

"There is a small group of people who have a huge knowledge base, and it's very important to get this knowledge into the mainstream," says Debra Bezzina, managing director for the Center for Connected and Automated Transportation (CCAT) at U-M. To this point, mobility experts have learned on the job or through trial and error.

"Engineering job titles may not change, but what professionals will be doing is very different," says Bezzina, who is also senior program manager for AACVTE.

The big picture is interdisciplinary

Experts predict that substantially developed mobility is 15 to 20 years in the future, with components of driver assistance, connected functionality, and smart infrastructure inching forward until then.

Brittany Hinton (left), Matthew David, and Joseph Baclawski work with Washtenaw Community College instructor Allen Day to configure and test a dedicated short range communication roadside unit, while WCC technician Jerry Allen looks on
Knowing that workforce needs will change progressively, Washtenaw Community College (WCC) started developing interdisciplinary training that blends intelligent transportation technology, automotive services and repair, and lightweight materials manufacturing, all under the umbrella of the WCC Advanced Transportation Center (ATC). Professional development certification will include programming, cybersecurity, and data analytics.

WCC also garnered a National Science Foundation grant to partner with Square One Education Network to train K-12 teachers in project-based learning for students to build autonomous vehicles for competition, complete with manufactured lightweight parts.

"Some of the kids may be college prep, and some vocational, and they all work together," says Dr. Michelle K. Mueller, vice president of economic, community & college development at WCC. "At the end of the day, an employer doesn't need someone who knows how to pass a test, or theoretically how something is supposed to work. The applied learning of STEM is so important."

Holistically, WCC is working to develop "an ecosystem of jobs in multiple industry sectors," says Mueller.

"That's our bread and butter in Michigan. Wealth comes from producing something and selling it."

Visit Driven and learn how the Detroit region is leading the world in next-generation mobility.

All photos, except where indicated, by Doug Coombe.
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